Have The Houthis Gone Rogue?


Sun, 30-01-2022 05:32 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

There are serious concerns that Yemen’s Houthis aren’t as closely under Iran’s control or influence as many observers previously thought, at least not anymore, that is. Their recent drone attack against Abu Dhabi came in the midst of Iran’s ongoing rapprochements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. This could have complicated both incipient political processes but no adverse effect seems to have occurred. That outcome suggests that those two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies tacitly believe that Iran didn’t order that attack. 

The Houthis’ drone attack against Abu Dhabi was widely condemned by the international community, including Russia. Chairman on International Affairs of the Russian parliament’s lower chamber Leonid Slutsky didn’t mince words while Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was slightly more diplomatic considering her position. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that Moscow didn’t approve of this attack, which is important to keep in mind when analyzing Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s recent address to the Russian Duma during his visit to Moscow in late January.

The Iranian leader slammed what he described as the “evil alliance” between the US and "terrorists" while praising the Afghan and Iraqi resistance. Quite curiously, he conspicuously didn’t condemn the GCC’s Yemeni campaign despite Tehran having previously done so on multiple occasions, nor did he praise what the Iranians describe as the “Yemeni resistance” represented by the Houthis. These omissions were notable, just like his silence on Israel and Zionism when discussing threats to regional stability. Few could have expected an Iranian leader to pass up such a high-profile opportunity to condemn them towards the GCC’s Yemeni campaign and the Houthis’ cause, however, suggests that the Iranian position towards that conflict and one of its key actors is potentially in the midst of a recalibration behind the scenes. He could have at least indirectly referred to them, after all, if he really wanted to. 

Observers should keep in mind that President Raisi’s trip to Russia came shortly after the Houthis’ drone attack against Abu Dhabi that was so widely condemned across the world. It also threatened to sabotage his country’s incipient rapprochements with the GCC’s Emirati and Saudi leaders. It might therefore very well be the case that Iran wants to distance itself from that movement despite reportedly having armed it in the past and supposedly still doing so in the present. The Houthis seem to have “gone rogue” in the sense that they’re now operating much more independently of Iran. 

They’ve always maintained their strategic autonomy though and it wasn’t ever entirely accurate to describe them as “Iranian puppets” like some have earlier done. Due to obvious geographical limitations, Iran could never fully control any group right on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep. Furthermore, the Houthis are fiercely ideological with their aims and might even have begun to suspect that Iran either wants to distance itself from them or might even be considering some kind of deal for resolving that conflict behind their backs.

To explain this theory, it’s enough to realize that the ongoing nuclear negotiations most likely don’t solely concern that issue but probably involve a more comprehensive deal over the entire region. The US’ “Pivot to Asia” that’s aimed at more aggressively “containing” China necessitates that country continuing its gradual disengagement from West Asia in order to redeploy more of its forces from there to the Indo-Pacific. That can only happen if some sort of deal is agreed to for responsibly regulating Iran’s regional influence that the US hitherto considered to be destabilizing. 

Educated conjectures suggest that the US might be exploring the possibility of Iranian compromises in Syria and Yemen in exchange for sanctions relief of some sort and other reciprocal compromises from America. If that’s the case, then it’s understandable why the Houthis might be so concerned about the long-term reliability of their Iranian allies. It would also explain why they decided to escalate tensions by attacking Abu Dhabi in order to further internationalize the conflict. Their motivation might have been to pressure Iran to continue supporting them unconditionally amid fears that it’s wavering. 

Should that be the case, then the Houthis’ drone attack against Abu Dhabi can be described as strategically counterproductive since it put Iran in a very difficult position considering its incipient rapprochements with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The "Islamic Republic" sometimes sends indirect signals about its policies in accordance with its strategic culture, which is what President Raisi’s silence about the GCC, the Houthis, and Yemen can potentially be interpreted as when analyzing his recent address to the Duma. Nobody could have expected him not to utter a word about any of those three. 

All of these observations suggest that the Houthis are “going rogue”. They’re no longer under Iran’s full control or influence like previously thought. In fact, they’re increasingly operating in ways that are contrary to their ally’s grand strategic aims as evidenced by their drone attack against Abu Dhabi. It’s unclear exactly how far Iran’s speculative recalibration of its stance towards the Yemeni War will go but there shouldn’t be any doubt that such a recalibration is presently being seriously considered by that country. It’ll remain to be seen what effect, if any, this could have on shaping that conflict’s dynamics. 

Moscow-based American political analyst
Photo: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi welcomes a delegation from the Houthis headed by Mohammed Abdul-Salam (Official) 
Opinions expressed in this analysis reflects its author

HouthisIranUAESaudi ArabiaEbrahim RaisiDumaRussiaNuclearMoscowAbu Dhabi